ROME — An Italian judge convicted 23 Americans on Wednesday
of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan, Italy, in 2003, a
sweeping verdict against one of the CIA’s most valued anti-terrorism tools —
the practice known as extraordinary rendition.
The decision was a victory for Italian anti-terrorism
prosecutors and police who spent six years building a massive case. The
two-year trial exposed details of a secretive world and was the first anywhere
to challenge the program under which the CIA abducted suspects and spirited
them to third countries for interrogation.
A clandestine team of U.S. and Italian operatives abducted
Abu Omar, a militant cleric suspected of recruiting fighters for Iraq and
Afghanistan. He was flown to Egypt, where he claimed to have undergone months
of torture and abuse.
The case sparked international uproar, and the governments
of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor tried
repeatedly to scuttle the trial.
“I think it is very important for everyone that this
trial was completed,” said Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor. He added:
“The message of this important ruling — to nations, governments,
institutions, secret services, etc. — is that we cannot use illegal instruments
in our effort against terrorism. Our democracies, otherwise, would betray their
Judge Oscar Magi acquitted three other Americans, including
the former CIA station chief in Italy, because they had diplomatic immunity.
Magi also set aside charges against five Italian intelligence officials
including the former chief and deputy chief of Italy’s spy agency, ruling they
were protected by a state-secrets law. But he convicted two other Italians.
The Americans were tried in absentia. Given that the U.S.
government has declined to cooperate with the prosecution, it seemed unlikely
that any would spend time in an Italian prison. However, the convicted
Americans may be at risk if they travel to Europe. Prosecutors have issued
arrest warrants that can be executed in any of the European Union’s 27
The judge issued an eight-year prison sentence for Robert
Seldon Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan. Testimony indicated that Lady
initially opposed abducting Abu Omar as unnecessary and dangerous but
ultimately became the ground-level architect of the operation. The other U.S.
operatives were given five-year sentences, and the Italians received three-year
With the help of Lady, Italian police had already been
investigating Omar. But Lady was alleged to have orchestrated the kidnapping
without their knowledge. The operation on the streets of a close ally caused
bad blood among U.S. and Italian anti-terrorism officials and within
anti-terrorism agencies in both countries, according to testimony.
Italian intelligence officials testified that the station
chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli, and other officials pushed for the rendition,
possibly hoping to recruit Abu Omar as an informant. The CIA deployed a
paramilitary squad, aided by Italian operatives, that stalked Abu Omar for
weeks before snatching him and rushing him to the U.S. military base at Aviano,
where he was flown to Egypt via Germany.
In a wiretapped phone call to his wife and later in public
statements, the Egyptian alleged that his country’s security forces had
tortured him and locked him in a rat-infested cell. Egyptian authorities
eventually released him, but they did not allow him to return to Italy to
Probably because they had clearance from Italian spymasters,
the U.S. operatives left a trail of cell phone calls, credit card charges and
photo identification documents. The evidence enabled an elite anti-terrorism
unit of the Italian police to assemble a detailed case that became an anatomy
of a rendition.
“The Milan court sent a powerful message: The CIA can’t
just abduct people off the streets,” said Joanne Mariner, terrorism
program director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s illegal, unacceptable and
The Bush administration aggressively expanded an
already-existing rendition program. Human rights advocates believe U.S. agents
transported terrorism suspects to the custody of countries including Egypt,
Jordan, Morocco, Libya and Syria.
The exact number of people is unknown. In a speech in 2007,
former CIA Director Michael Hayden said that fewer than 100 had been targets of
the program since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Obama administration has cracked down on what it calls
abusive tactics, moving to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo, end
secret detentions and investigate harsh interrogation methods.
But U.S. officials have said spy agencies will continue
renditions, albeit with more oversight, because they are an effective tool for
fighting terrorism, especially in lawless regions. Critics have warned that the
combined effect of overseas prosecution and the administration’s new policies
will damage the morale of CIA officers and impede them from doing an already
On Wednesday, the CIA declined to comment, as it has
throughout the case.
Other U.S. officials expressed disappointment.
“We are disappointed by the verdicts against the
Americans and Italians charged in Milan for their alleged involvement in the
case involving Egyptian cleric Abu Omar,” said Ian C. Kelly, a State
Department spokesman. He said he expects defense lawyers to appeal.
A Pentagon spokesman said the judge should have dismissed
charges against Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Romano, who was in charge of security
at the Aviano base. The Pentagon had argued that Romano was shielded by a NATO
treaty that protects the U.S. military from foreign prosecution.
Spartaro said he probably will appeal the acquittals of the
three Americans and the verdicts setting aside charges against the Italians.
Because Judge Magi convicted most of the American suspects,
it was surprising that he cited diplomatic immunity for his acquittals of
Castelli and the two other officials based at the U.S. embassy in Rome.
Prosecutors had argued that immunity did not apply.
But analysts said the judge apparently made the decision
because the case against the top officials in Rome lacked the abundant physical
evidence accumulated against those directly involved.
“It was rather surprising because it seemed from the
investigation that Castelli was the person who inspired the operation,”
said Guido Olimpio, author of a book about the case called “Operation
Hotel California” and Washington correspondent for Italy’s Corriere della
“But the evidence was the strongest involving the
kidnapping itself and those who took part. The important fact is that it is the
first verdict of its kind. Usually spies from a friendly nation are expelled,
McClatchy-Tribune News Service.